Africa’s avant-garde architecture: A symbol of independence

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Countries across Africa gained independence in the 1950s through to the 1970s

They celebrated this by asserting their identities in avant-garde architecture

CNN  — 

Rural landscapes glimpsed in photographs of Africa can often be deceiving. Most Africans live in cities, and an additional 187 million will do so over the next decade making it the world’s fastest urbanizing region.

A new exhibition, Architecture of Independence: African Modernism, takes a look at how five countries in Africa started to build following colonial rule.

From state banks to convention centers and stadiums, over 700 photographs capture architecture in Ghana, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya and Zambia.

Around two thirds of African countries gained independence during the late 1950s and 1960s. Its newly elected leaders wanted to assert their newfangled freedom and national identity by deploying modernist styles commissioned from local architects but also old colonial ties.

Others with more socialist ambitions turned to Eastern European architects from the likes of Yugoslavia and Hungary. Israel and the US were also sources for new thinking.

It was all about forming new political relationships believes curator Manuel Herz.

 The Kenyatta International Conference Center (KICC for short), in Nairobi, Kenya, opened in 1973.

“They were looking to bring the world to Africa,” he told CNN. “There was a very optimistic spirit at that time where the young nations wanted to participate in cultural, economical and social processes around the world, and hence invite the world to Abidjan, Nairobi, Accra, Lusaka or Dakar.”

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The curator believes local architects were so few in the commissions due to the capabilities. “There was no possibility of studying architecture in Sub-Saharan Africa in the late 1950s and early 60s with the exception of apartheid South Africa, which was off limits.”

But despite international designs, climate and resources meant buildings invariably ended up being shaped by local aesthetics. Zambia’s capital Lusaka and Kenya’s capital Nairobi are former British colonies that employed many of the same architects but with radically different outcomes.

Designed by the Public Works Department, Independence Arch was built in 1961 to put Ghana on the world stage.

“While the architecture in Nairobi shows an exploration of layered facades, louvers, screens, filters, and expressive sun shading,” said Manuel, “the architecture in Lusaka is more volumetric and employs a lot of brick, something you don’t see at all in Nairobi.”

He believes the difference lay not just in availability of resources but the emergence of a local style.

It also shows us that ‘the architect’ is not the only author of a building, but that it is also local influences that strongly shape a building,” Manuel said.

In Ghana local artists such as John Owusu-Addo were employed. Ghana focused on building universities and schools across the whole country rather than devoting its attention exclusively to its capital Accra. “Côte d’Ivoire, neighbor to Ghana was emphasizing commercial buildings, offices, and housing projects,” Herz said.

“What makes this so interesting is the fact that we can use architecture to gain an understanding about how each country went through the process of decolonization, and did so very differently.”

By the 1980s privatization kicked in and so too the idea of building exclusively for Africa’s elites.

“Public institutions stopped constructing,” Herz told CNN. “This led to a decline in building activity, and to a loss of a building culture and knowledge. It is my believe, that many countries in Africa are still suffering from this decline or hiatus.”

Today, architects such as Kunle Adeyemi, Mokena Makeka and Francis Kéré are re-engaging Africa’s public into the possibilities of mere concrete.

‘Architecture of Independence - African Modernism’ runs until May 27 at the Center for Architecture, Manhattan.